Actor Jessica Lange and Playwright Paula Vogel on Creating New Possibilities for TheaterThe two connected to discuss Mother Play, Vogel’s forthcoming Broadway show in which Lange stars

For more than four decades, playwright and theater educator Paula Vogel has been challenging audiences to confront issues and impulses we often shy away from. Vogel’s Obie Award–winning 1992 tragicomic play The Baltimore Waltz was a meditation on the AIDS crisis at a time when the disease—and the fear, stigmatization, and misinformation that surrounded it—was wreaking devastation. Her 1994 one-act play Hot ’N’ Throbbing explored the relationship between pornography and domestic violence, while 1997’s How I Learned to Drive dealt with sexual abuse and misogyny and earned her a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Vogel made her Broadway debut in 2017 with Indecent, which mused on queer love, antisemitism, and censorship. This month marks her return, with the world premiere of Mother Play, produced by Second Stage Theater and directed by Tina Landau, about the mistakes parents inevitably make and how families can move on from trauma. The play’s narrative centers on Phyllis, played by Jessica Lange, who is left penniless by her unfaithful husband to raise her two children, Carl (Jim Parsons) and Martha (Celia Keenan-Bolger), on her own as they attempt to navigate regrets, resentments, dashed expectations, and fateful decisions over the course of 40 years.

Lange, who has portrayed an array of complex female characters over the course of her career—all while raising her own three children—was at the top of Vogel’s wish list to play Phyllis. In addition to her Oscar-winning work in Tootsie (1982) and Blue Sky (1994) and critically lauded roles in films like Frances (1982), Country (1984), and Sweet Dreams (1985), Lange has, in more recent years, become a mainstay of the Ryan Murphy universe, appearing in five iterations of his American Horror Story anthology series and starring as Joan Crawford alongside Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis in the first season of Feud. Most recently, she appeared in Feud: Capote vs. the Swans as Truman Capote’s mother, Lillie Mae Faulk.

Lange’s first appearance on Broadway was in a 1992 production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, while her most recent was in the hit 2016 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for which she won her first Tony Award, for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play. She is also an accomplished photographer: Her latest book of images, Dérive, with an introduction by critic Hilton Als, was released last year.

Ahead of Mother Play’s opening on April 25, Vogel and Lange convened to discuss motherhood, working together as women in their 70s, and creating new prospects—and possibilities—for theater.

Paula Vogel: I’ve had Mother Play in my mind for at least 15 years. But I feel like we’ve been in a climate, in both film and theater, where we are encouraged to create likable women.

Jessica Lange: I think that is a danger that actors also feel—that the character you’re playing gets some kind of empathy or sympathy. You want the audience to like this character. So it’s great when you actually see an actor step off the ledge and play someone unlikable.

PV: That’s right. I do think that women, in general, onscreen and offscreen, are judged primarily by our morality. But when someone leaps off the ledge, I may not like their character, but I love them. Male characters are loved that way when they head into the danger zone.

“Plays and ideas cannot be controlled, and they show us things that people may not want us to see.” —Paula Vogel

JL: I appreciate the opportunity to play a character like Phyllis, who is so complete and so expansive. I love that we’re dealing with a woman over four decades. It’s going to be a wonderful exercise in finding what happens in the body, to the voice, to the psyche as those decades pass. And of course, there’s also this irrevocable mistake, a decision that she lives the rest of her life regretting.

PV: Watching you shifts my notion of what is possible. I start to think about women characters differently. We’ve also lived the same spectrum of time.

JL: We have a shared reference.

PV: Right—the 1950s, 1960s, and the incredible permutations we’ve both gone through in terms of what it means to be a woman walking the street in America, decade by decade by decade. That so enriches your performance of this role; it’s extraordinary. I know you hear this all the time, but when you are onstage, there’s a life force that is there in every part of your body.

JL: We have a dialogue and a vocabulary that allow us this give-and-take, which I find such a thrilling process. For me, the really great part of this process has been working with a living playwright.

PV: So far. [Laughs.]

JL: I’ve done classic American plays by two of the great playwrights, Tennessee Williams and, my favorite, Eugene O’Neill, but I have never done a new play. Working with you, it feels like something is being created—like something is always evolving and changing.

PV: Yeah. I also know how valuable and lucky this time is for me. What you’re probably feeling is that as I watch you, I am shifting my notion of what is possible. The container is getting larger as I watch you, and I start to think about women characters differently. I love working with a multidimensional artist. Yes, you do film, you do TV, you do stage. But you are also a photographer. When do you feel most vulnerable, when you’re working as an actor or when you’re exhibiting and showing your photography?

pulitzer prize winning playwright paula vogel talks about her work including

Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

pulitzer prize winning playwright paula vogel talks about her work including

Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

JL: Probably working as an actor, because the instrument is you. You expose everything. As I get older, there’s this thing of having to give up one’s notion of what you look like. There’s always that dark vanity that comes in, and it’s just going, “Look how old you look.” It’s great when you get to a point where you no longer think in those terms, and it’s obviously very different for women than it is for men. That was one of the major themes of the first season of Feud: when you are discarded as a woman, as an actress, because you are deemed too old. But going back to your question: As a photographer, you always have this object that you’re seeing the world through, and that immediately creates some kind of distance.

PV: I’m nowhere as deeply read about photography, but we both share a love for this book Camera Lucida [by Roland Barthes]. It says that when we take a picture, the second the picture has been taken, we are moving toward death. We can’t stop time. Of course, in the background of this for me, there’s Thornton Wilder and his notion of time in his play Our Town. There’s a scene where a woman named Emily, who has died, wants to relive her 12th birthday to see her mom then. When we are young, we don’t realize how beautiful our mothers are. Once you recognize that, once you see photographs of her as a young girl, you realize that your mother is always beautiful, that all ages are in her body.

JL: I’m the first to say my mother was a great beauty.

PV: My mother always claimed that she named me Paula Anne Vogel so my initials would be PAV, for “piss and vinegar.” And that’s an extraordinary gift to give your daughter.

JL: Yeah, that’s right. [Laughs.]

PV: It’s just lovely. I always wanted to have children and didn’t. When I was younger, I didn’t know how to trespass as a gay woman forming a lifestyle. I mean, if I could have looked 20 years ahead, I would’ve said, “Go on, Vogel.” But I didn’t. I know that there’s no way that I could do this play without an artist who has had a life filled with children. Are there things in the play that you would never do as a mother? And what happens to your own sense and identity when you face those moments?

JL: I think that’s going to be part of the whole discovery. Nothing in my life has ever been more important to me than my children. I didn’t have the kind of ambition that I see in a lot of other performers and actors, where the family and everything else takes a back seat to their career. I understand that choice. It was just unnatural for me. So, yes, some of these scenes [in Mother Play] are going to be really hard for me, because they are so unnatural. I’ll have to find my way into it. … It’s going to have to come out of some desperation, some miscalculation, some rage.

PV: Yeah. It’s asking a lot. Guilt plays a small role in playwriting because you’re asking wonderful artists to do things that you could never do. How old were your kids when they started seeing you perform?

JL: I remember that my younger daughter, Hannah, would come with me to the theater where I was doing Streetcar in London. It was a weekly ritual. She would sit backstage, and in the play, my character, Blanche, always exits to the bathroom, which is offstage, to sing. So I would go backstage, and Hannah would be sitting there in the “bathroom.” But for a long time, my kids didn’t know I was an actor, and then somebody would recognize me, and they’d say, “How did they know who you are?” It’s a tricky thing, because you’re just their mother, and it’s very private. It’s family. … I want to talk a bit about this virtual reading series you’re doing. How did that come about?

“We live in a very corporate world now—and that, to me, is the antithesis of art.” —Jessica Lange

PV: Bard at the Gate is a digital series that I created in 2020. We were rehearsing [for the Broadway premiere of] How I Learned to Drive, and then we all got tremendously sick and had to cancel the production. I thought, “If I’m going to shuffle off my mortal coil with this damn disease, I don’t want to die before I see these plays that I love and have never been produced or deserve a wider audience.” I read a lot of plays as an assistant literary reader, and I would get into a lot of fights with artistic directors, saying, “How can you not do this new play?” I carried these plays with me for decades. So I had this list and I thought, “Well, maybe I can live long enough to stage readings on Zoom, so if I die, I’ve actually seen Eisa Davis’s [2006 play] Bulrusher”—which I think is one of the most phenomenal plays I’ve ever read.  In 2007, when it was written, I was on the Pulitzer Prize jury, and the jury awarded Bulrusher the Pulitzer. And then we discovered that it went to another quite lovely play, Rabbit Hole, that hadn’t initially been nominated.

JL: How did that happen? What was your purpose as a jury, then?

PV: That’s my question, too. I did not realize that the board could reverse the decision. I tracked Eisa down one evening after she’d performed in the musical Passing Strange, and I said, “You have written one of the most sensational plays I’ve ever read.” And she’s like, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” I’m sure as an African-American artist she was like, “Of course [this could happen]…” So during COVID, I turned to Eisa and I said, “We have no money, but I’m going to take my last royalty check and we could do [Bulrusher on Zoom] on $1,000 each.” And artists like Corey Stoll and André Holland said yes. Kara Young said, “Yes, I’ll play Bulrusher.” We did it with people in their living rooms in front of green screens. … I believe that every theater piece needs to be digitalized and accessible. It increases the demand, particularly for young kids. We’re all aware that it’s very hard for LGBTQ+ artists and writers of color to break through. We cannot afford to throw away new plays by this younger generation.

JL: I recently went through, and 75 percent of what’s on or coming to Broadway is big musicals. Then I get to the so-called “straight plays,” right?

PV: I call them straight plays, too. They fall in love with plays of the opposite sex.

JL: What I observe is that there is not a lot of new work being shown. Maybe Off Broadway, but that’s always been the case. I think about Sam [Lange’s former partner, the late actor and playwright Sam Shepard] and the way he started. He used to tell me about getting off a bus in New York City as a young guy and seeing a little piece of theater somewhere and thinking, “I could do that”—and then writing plays and bringing them over to La MaMa or St. Marks Place. We live in a very corporate world now—and that, to me, is the antithesis of art.

PV: I can’t agree with you more. When I came to New York, I could go to the holes in the wall and see Sam’s Buried Child or something by María Irene Fornés. We’ve never in this country figured out how to fund theater. And I think there’s a political reason—that plays and ideas cannot be controlled, and they show us things that people may not want us to see. But here’s what I know: I spend my time working with young writers, and there’s absolute brilliance out there. I think theater will come back, but we have a very tall order of how to work around our notion that the arts are something that corporations pay for, versus the arts are something that we each should pay for and participate in.

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Ariana Marsh is Harper Bazaar’s senior features editor. Working across print and digital, she covers the arts, culture, fashion, literature, and entertainment—and a bit of everything in between.